Mar 31, 2008

Ahwazi: Iran Continues Persecution

Active ImageAhwazi Arabs are one of the Middle East's most disadvantaged and persecuted ethnic groups. The overwhelming majority of the Ahwazi Arabs live in Iran's Khuzestan province.

Below is an article written by Daniel Brett published by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society:

Residing mainly in the south-west of Iran, the Ahwazi Arabs are one of the Middle East's most disadvantaged and persecuted ethnic groups. The overwhelming majority of the Ahwazi Arabs live in Iran's Khuzestan province (accounting for some 67% of the province's population), which occupies a geo-strategically crucial position. Not only is it the gateway between the Arab world and Asia, but it also accounts for up to 90% of Iran's oil resources. This 'accident of natural geography', far from being to the benefit of the local population, though, has been the source of much hardship.

While Khuzestan's oil forms the backbone of the Iranian economy, its indigenous Arab inhabitants have been viewed, at best, as an inconvenience, or, at worst, a threat, by the Iranian government. Oil revenues from the province are largely spent elsewhere “to the extent that the Iranian government has consistently refused to allocate just 1.5% of oil revenues to Khuzestan, as requested by the province's representatives in the Majlis” (parliament).



Since the 1979 revolution, Arab-owned land has been forcibly taken, or 'legally' stolen, by the government for sugar plantations, oil and petrochemical facilities, military bases and settlements for non-Arabs brought in from other provinces. Indigenous Arabs have been forced into slums that are separated from non-indigenous areas with concrete separation walls, similar to those constructed by the Israelis in the West Bank. Even the slums, where the landless are forced to move, are not immune from the confiscation campaign. The homes of 4,000 Arab residents of Sapidar, many of whom fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, were destroyed and bulldozed over in 2003. More than 15,000 Arab farmers, who have been made landless by the government's land confiscation programme, have been forced to resettle in a camp named "Bhehsheti" outside city of Mashahd in the north eastern Iranian province of Khorassan.

In all, at least 300,000 hectares of Arab land has been stolen since 1979. By way of comparison, in almost 40 years of occupation of the West Bank, the Israelis are estimated to have confiscated some 394,000 hectares of Palestinian land. In addition to sustained land confiscation, the Ahwazis have faced not only social and economic discrimination (enduring hardship, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment at higher rates than the national average), but also a prolonged 'kulturkampf', waged against them by the Iranian regime. Land confiscation and forced migration are in line with the "ethnic restructuring" programme outlined in a top secret letters written by Mohammad-Ali Abtahi when he served as Iran's Vice-President and Brigadier General Gholamali Rasheed. The Abtahi letter was leaked to the international media in 2005, prompting the April intifada in Ahwaz in which over 100 Ahwazis were killed by security forces. 


Following a visit to Khuzestan in July 2005, UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, condemned the land confiscation programme aimed at Arabs and the fact that economic development was by-passing the indigenous population. In an interview, he said: "When you visit Ahwaz ... there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections ... why is that? Why have certain groups not benefited? ... Again in Khuzestan, ... we drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000-250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects. And the question that comes up in my mind is, why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations? I asked the officials, I asked the people we were with. And there is other land in Khuzestan where projects could have been placed which would have minimised the displacement." Kothari criticised the "attempt being made by the government to build new towns and bring in new people from other provinces", singling out Shirinshah for criticism.

Official statistics tend to underplay the real extent of unemployment, which rises to well over 50% among Ahwazi Arab youth and women. Statistics show that 1.46 million live in the countryside, where official unemployment reaches 20%, although problems of under-employment mean the actual rate is likely to be far higher. Despite the province's fertility and potential in agriculture, farms are suffering from a lack of investment and are under-performing, leading to rural poverty. (Khuzestan is the richest province, but ..., Karoon newspaper, 6 May 2007) Ahwazi NGOs believe that urban poverty is far worse than the government is prepared to admit.

High poverty rates are the result of racial discrimination in employment. Ahwazi Arabs are denied jobs, while the government confiscates their land for residential developments to house non-Arabs enticed from outside the province with incentives such as zero-interest loans. Even in the formal economy, Ahwazi Arabs are faced with non-payment of wages and the severe restriction of labour rights. Arabs are faced with discrimination in the civil service. Of the top 25 governmental positions, only two or three are Arabs. This 10-15% ratio of Arabs to non-Arabs in the Ahwaz City administration drops to less than 5% at the provincial level. This means that almost 70% of the population of Khuzestan (the Arabs) hold less than 15% of the key and important governmental positions. Added to this is the high level of illiteracy (over 50%) among Arabs, child malnutrition rates approaching 80% in Arab districts and the contamination of rivers and the water supply with sewerage and industrial pollution.

Marginalising the dispossessed

Although all Iranian citizens suffer political repression and serious restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, state violence against Ahwazi Arabs is more extreme than against critics in Tehran. Any form of Arab political mobilisation has been crushed, with the government executing anyone suspected of engaging in minority rights activism.

Ahwazi Arab minority rights activists are portrayed by the Iranian government as representing all that it regards as "evil". The government and its supporters routinely denounce Ahwazi rights activists as Satanic, Wahhabi (Sunni extremists), Ba'athist or agents working on behalf of the Israeli, British, US or Saudi governments. Although Ahwazi activists campaign against social, cultural, economic and political exclusion, the government insists they have a religious agenda that is antithetical to the theocratic establishment, the "source of truth." Consequently, Ahwazi dissidents are often put on trial for "enmity with God", which is punishable by death.


In the international community, the British government, members of the House of Commons, the European Commission and the European Parliament have condemned ethnic discrimination against Ahwazi Arabs and other national groups. However, they have concentrated on individual cases of human rights abuse against Ahwazi Arabs, particularly the use of the death penalty, rather than broader issue of ethnic persecution. British government ministers have voiced concern that any proactive stance could cause more problems than it would solve, confirming Iranian propaganda that claims the British government is funding, training and arming separatist organizations. Neither the UK nor the EU have endorsed the Ahwazi Arabs' right to self-determination or the Mohammerah Declaration of 1979, which embodies the aspirations of Ahwazi Arabs. Yet, if the Iranian regime is to be prevented from driving the Ahwazi people literally off the map, then it's vital that their predicament be placed firmly on the 'political map' here in the West as well as the Arab world. Ahwazi Arabs can neither rely on their Iranian compatriots nor their Arab brothers for support. International solidarity is therefore essential to ending their persecution.